Seventy Faces of Torah Remembering the Sacredness of Speech
Parshat Vayigash, Genesis 44:18-47:27
Our parashah is in many ways the peak of the dramatic Joseph story. Once cast into bondage in Egypt by his jealous brothers, Joseph has now risen, against the odds, and through his political acumen and remarkable ability to decipher dreams, has become the Pharaoh’s second-in command. A merciless famine in the land of Israel has driven his estranged family to come before Pharaoh’s minister in supplication for food, though of course they do not yet know that this exacting—yet generous—officer is none other than Joseph himself.
Joseph artfully conceals his identity for some time, testing his brothers’ intentions and making sure that their motives are pure. But he can no longer withstand the pain of seeing his family bending their knees without being able to join them. Filled with a spirit of loving forgiveness, Joseph opens his heart to the brothers and speaks to them in such a way that his identity becomes clear.
The great Torah commentator, Rashi, commenting on the strange locution, “my mouth is speaking to you” (Genesis 45:12), explains that Joseph speaks to his family in Hebrew, revealing his true identity as their brother by invoking their shared sacred language (known in classical rabbinic literature as the Holy Tongue, leshon ha-kodesh). The sons of Jacob thus realize that the figure before them is indeed their erstwhile and beloved brother.
Another medieval commentator, Nahmanides, takes issue with this interpretation, pointing out that many individuals in the ancient Near East must have known Hebrew. Since it was far from a secret language, Joseph’s choice to reveal his identity to his brothers by speaking to them in the Holy Tongue must turn upon something more than pragmatism and tribal linguistic identity. Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Epstein, an early Hasidic master, builds upon Rashi’s and Nahmanides’ interpretations, offering a definition of the Holy Tongue that is bold and expansive.
Rather than identifying it as a particular language, Rabbi Epstein suggests that the Holy Tongue is best understood as an approach to language as such. All words spoken by an individual with attention, awareness, open-heartedness and inner sanctity are within the category of holy speech. Of course, the words themselves may be expressed in the conventions of Hebrew, English, Spanish, or Arabic, but these semantic systems are no more than vessels for the sanctified inner vitality of language. Yosef’s brothers were thus overcome by the holy quality of his words, a linguistic garment for his love for them.
Words have become tragically debased in the current political climate. Speech grounded in bigotry, racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and other forms of ignorance and hatred has made a terrifying resurgence, and it appears to be continuing unchecked. The level of discourse, private as well as public, has been rapidly dragged into the most banal swamp of human instincts. We are very far from the notion of sacred language, the idea that words can and should be a sacred force for healing, understanding, ennoblement, and spiritual uplift.
Remembering the sacred capacity of language is essential to our project of national healing. Like Joseph, we must have the courage to reach out by opening our hearts and, through our words, restoring a connection rent asunder by enmity, hostility, and animosity.
Prayer will serve us well as a tool for reclaiming this sacred approach to words. The words of the liturgy shepherd us into the presence of the Divine. And it is through words that we bring some measure of this illumination and inspiration into our daily lives, processing the experience as well as communicating it to others. To step into prayer, no matter which language we use to do so, is to embrace the sacred quality of words.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his evocative and soulful exploration of Jewish prayer entitled Man’s Quest for God, offers the following meditation on the power of language:
What do most of us know about the substance of words? Estranged from the soil of the soul, our words do not grow as fruits of insights, but are found as sapless clichés, refuse in the backyard of intelligence. To the man of our age nothing is as familiar and nothing as trite as words… An island in this world are the words of prayer. Each time when arriving at the shore, we face the same hazards, the same strain, tension and risk. Each time the island must be conquered, as if we had never been there before, as if we were strangers to the spirit. Rugged is the shore, and in the sight of majestic utterances we stand, seeking a kindred word on which to gain a foothold for our souls.
Joseph’s heartwrenching encounter with his brothers must command our attention. His decision to speak to his family with a spirit of holiness reminds us of the potential sacredness of all words that emerge from the heart. Language can indeed destroy, as we know all too well, but if rooted in the sacred, our words become blessed vessels for repair and healing.
Ariel Evan Mayse is the Director of Jewish Studies and visiting Assistant Professor of Modern Jewish Thought at Hebrew College in Newton, MA. He holds a PhD in Jewish Studies from Harvard University and rabbinic ordination from Beit Midrash Har’el. In addition to several scholarly and popular articles on Jewish mysticism, he is co-editor of the two-volume collection Speaking Torah: Spiritual Teachings From Around the Maggid’s Table (Jewish Lights, 2013) and editor of From the Depth of the Well: An Anthology of Jewish Mysticism (Paulist Press, 2014).
Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work.“ Rabbi Judson teaches history, oversees the professional development program, and serves as the placement director for the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. He has a PhD in Jewish history from Brandeis University.